I have now lived long enough in Manchester to be able to think of it as home although I had never once been “up north” during the first 27 years of my life. I encountered northerners for the first time during my college years in Portsmouth, where I studied after leaving my school in Plymouth. It was at college that a lad from Stoke introduced me to the concept that swear words sound much more effective when short vowel sounds are employed. Then, for a while, I shared a room with a lad from Burnley who, to my amazement, scorned the notion that Stoke was actually in the northern hemisphere at all, and whose accent seemed to me so improbable that he must have had some sort of speech defect. I had no idea where Burnley was, and this ignorance was compounded and confused by the subsequent discovery that there were places nearby with similar sounding names like Bolton, Bury and Blackburn.
Cut to the present, and I decided to sort this out once and for all, starting with Bury for the very simple reason that it is a mere 28 minute tram ride north of my place. It may not be everyone’s idea of an exciting day out, but Bury does modestly boast of having the best market in the country, so who knows what else I might find?
The first thing I found, was that Bury’s present day town plan is a triumph of utility over aesthetic, with the exit from the station into a cheap, metal and glass warren of bus stands obscuring the view of the more elegant, Victorian square beyond. Gasping for a decent cup of coffee, I decided against the station cafe, whose blackboard advertised spam and egg muffins for £2.30. I hoped to do better than that, and headed to the famous market, only to discover that I had chosen to go on a Monday, when it is not open. Secretly relieved, (I don’t much like markets), I headed for the nearby splendid-looking art gallery and museum which, it turned out, is also closed on Mondays. Sitting on the opposite side of the road, and very much open, however, was the Fusilier Museum. Military history does not particularly appeal, but the Heroes Cafe chalkboard outside did promise the best coffee in Bury.
About the coffee, let’s just say that the other establishments must have the bar set low. The museum, however, is terrific, and gives a fascinating insight into British history, as seen through its imperial war machine. Yes, there are guns and uniforms and medals on display, but there is also a story told, and it is one which has affected the lives of everyone from the region to some degree or other. I loved the fact that the headquarters of the regiment was moved from Exeter to Bury during the Industrial revolution in order cynically to take advantage of the greater numbers available for canon-fodder.
A couple of hours later, I took the tram back down south - way on down south – Manchester town, resolving to return on a Wednesday for the full-on Bury experience, and wondering if any northerners had ever confused Portsmouth with Plymouth. It’s easily done, and it can take years to sort it out.